The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 23

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The Fifth Wheel  (1916)  by Olive Higgins Prouty
An Encounter with Breck



MRS. SEWALL didn't remain long with me in the library after dinner. She excused herself to retire early. I was to read aloud to her later, when Marie called me. I was dawdling over a bit of sewing as I waited. My thoughts were busy, my cheeks hot. The experience of the day, climaxing in Mrs. Sewall's warm words, had excited me, I suppose. I wondered if first nights before footlights on Broadway could be more thrilling than this success of mine. Was it my new feeling of sisterhood that so elated me—or was it, more, Mrs. Sewall's capitulation? Was I still susceptible to flattery?

"Well, hello!" suddenly somebody interrupted.

I recognized the voice. My heart skipped a beat, I think, but my practiced needle managed to finish its stitch.

"Hello, there," the voice repeated, and I looked up and saw Breckenridge Sewall smiling broadly at me from between heavy portières.

"Hello, Breck," I said, and holding my head very high I inquired, "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, I'm stopping here," he grinned. "What are you doing?"

"You know very well what I'm doing," I replied. 'I'm your mother's private secretary. What are you doing around here, Breck?"

He laughed. "You beat 'em all. I swear you do! What am I doing around here! You'd think I didn't have a right in my own house. You'd think it was your house, and I'd broken in. Well, seeing you ask, I'll tell you what I'm doing. I'm observing a darned pretty girl, sitting in the corner of one of my sofas, in my library, and I don't object to it at all—not at all. Make yourself quite at home, my girl. Look here, aren't you glad to see a fellow back again?" He came over to me. "Put your hand there in mine and tell me so then. I've just come from the steamer. Nobody's extended greetings to me yet. I'm hurt."

"Haven't you seen your mother?" I inquired coolly.

"Not yet. The old lady'll keep. You come first on the program, little private secretary. Good Lord—private secretary! What do you know about that? Say, you're clever. Gee!" he broke off, "but it's good to get back. You're the first one I've seen except Perkins. Surprised?" He rested both hands on the table beside me, and leaned toward me. I kept on sewing. "Come, come," he said, "put it down. Don't you recollect I never was much on patience? Come, little private secretary, I'm just about at the end of my rope."

"I think you ought to go upstairs and see your mother," I replied calmly. "Did she expect you?"

"Sure. Sure, my dear. I 'phoned the mater to vanish. Savvy?" He was still leaning toward me. "Come, we're alone. I dropped everything on the spot to come to you. Now don't you suppose you can manage to drop that fancy-work stuff to say you're glad to see me?"

"Please, Breck," I said, moving away from him a little. He was very near me. "Don't be in such a hurry. Please. You always had to give me time, you know. Would you mind opening a window? It's so warm in here. And then explain this surprising situation? I'd thank you if you would."

"It is hot in here," he said, leaning still nearer, "hot as hell, or else it's the sight of you that makes my blood boil," he murmured.

I moved away again, reeled off some more thread and threaded my needle.

"You don't fall off!" Breck went on. "You don't lose your looks. By gad, you don't!"

"If you touch the bell by the curtain there," I said, "Perkins will come and open the window for us."

"Good Lord," Breck exclaimed, "you're the coolest proposition I ever ran across. All right. Have your own way, my lady. You always have been able to twist me around your little finger. Here goes." And he strode across to the front window, pulled the hangings back and threw open a sash. I felt the cool air on the back of my neck. Breck came back and stood looking down at me quizzically. I kept on taking stitches. "Keep right at it, industrious little one," he smiled. "Sew as long as you want to. I don't mind. I don't have to go out again to get home tonight. I'm satisfied. Stitch away, dear little Busy Bee." He took out a cigarette and lit it; then suddenly sat down on the sofa beside me, leaned back luxuriously, and in silence proceeded to send little rings of smoke ceilingward. "Lovely!" he murmured. "True felicity! I've dreamed of this! This is something like home now, my beauty. This is as it ought to be! I always wear holes in the heels too, my love. And no knots, kindly."

"Breck," I interrupted finally, "is your mother in this?"

"We're all in it, my dear child."

"Will you explain?"

"Sure, delighted. Sit up on my hind legs and beg if you want me to. Anything you say. It was this way. I was in London when mater happened to mention the name of her jewel of a secretary. I was about to start off on a long trip in the yacht—Spain, Southern France, Algiers. Stocked all up. Supplies, crew, captain—everything all ready. 'I don't care what becomes of 'em,' I said, when I got news where you were. 'I don't care. Throw 'em overboard. Guests too. I don't give a hang. Throw them over—Lady Dunbarton, and the Grand Duke too. Drown 'em! There's somebody back in New York who has hung out her little Come-hither sign for me, and I'm off for the little home-burg in the morning.'"

"Come-hither sign! O Breck, you're mistaken. I——"

"Hold on, my innocent little child, I wasn't born day before yesterday. But let that go. I won't insist. I've come anyhow." He leaned forward. "I'm as crazy about you as ever," he said earnestly. "I never cared a turn of my hand for any one but you. Queer too, but it's so. I'm not much on talking love—the real kind, you know—but I guess it must be what I feel for you. It must be what is keeping me from snatching away that silly stuff there in your hand, and having you in my arms now—whether you'd like it or not. Say," he went on, "I've come home to make this house really yours, and to give you the right of asking what I'm doing around here. You've won all your points—pomp, ceremony, big wedding, all the fuss, mater's blessing. The mater is just daffy about you—ought to see her letters. You're a winner, you're a great little diplomat, and I'm proud of you too. I shall take you everywhere—France, England, India. You'll be a queen in every society you enter—you will. By Jove—you will. Here in New York, too, you'll shine, you little jewel; and up there at Hilton, won't we show them a few things? You bet! Say—I've come to ask you to marry me. Do you get that? That's what I've come for—to make you Mrs. Breckenridge Sewall."

I sat very quietly sewing through this long speech of Breck's. The calm, regular sticking in and pulling out of my needle concealed the tumult of my feelings. I thought I had forever banished my taste for pomp and glory, but I suppose it must be a little like a man who has forsworn alcohol. The old longing returns when he gets a smell of wine, and sees it sparkling within arm's reach.

As I sat contemplating for a moment the bright and brilliant picture of myself as Breck's wife, favored by Mrs. Sewall, envied, admired by my family, homaged by the world, the real mistress of this magnificent house, I asked myself if perhaps fate, now that I had left it to its own resources in regard to Breck, did not come offering this prize as just reward. And then suddenly, borne upon the perfumed breeze that blew through the open window, I felt the sharp keen stab of a memory of a Spring ago—fields, New England—fields and woods; brooks; hills; a little apartment of seven rooms, bare, unfurnished; and somebody's honest gray eyes looking into mine. It seemed as if the very embodiment of that memory had passed near me. It must have been that some flowering tree outside in the park, bearing its persuasive sweetness through the open window, touched to life in my consciousness a memory imprinted there by the perfume of some sister bloom in New England. I almost felt the presence of him with whom I watched the trees bud and flower a Spring ago. Even though some subtle instinct prompted Breck at this stage to rise and put down the window, the message of the trees had reached me. It made my reply to Breck gentle. When he came back to me I stood up and put aside my needle-work.

"Well?" he questioned.,

"I'm so sorry. I can't marry you, Breck. I can't."

"Why not? Why can't you? What's your game? What do you want of me? Don't beat around. I'm serious. What do you mean 'you can't?'"

"I'm sorry, but I don't care enough for you, Breck. I wish I did, but I just don't."

"Oh, you don't! That's it. Well, look here, don't let that worry you. I'll make you care for me. I'll attend to that. Do you understand?" And suddenly he put his arms about me. "I'll marry you and make you care," he murmured. I felt my hot cheek pressed against his rough coat, and smelled again the old familiar smell of tobacco, mixed with the queer eastern perfume which Breck's valet always put a little of on his master's handkerchief. "You've got to marry me. You're helpless to do anything else—as helpless as you are now to get away from me when I want to hold you. I'm crazy about you, and I shall have you some day too. If it's ceremony you want, it's yours. Oh, you're mine—mine, little private secretary. Do you hear me? You're mine. Sooner or later you're mine."

He let me go at last.

I went over to a mirror and fixed my hair.

"I wish you hadn't done that," I said, and rang for Perkins. He came creaking in, in his squeaky boots.

"Perkins," I said, "will you call a taxi for me? I'm not staying with Mrs. Sewall now that she has her son here. Please tell her that I am going to Esther's."

"I shall see that you get there safely," warned Breck. "I've rights while you're under this roof."

"It isn't necessary, Breck. I often walk. I'm used to going about alone. But do as you please. However, if you do come, I'm going to ask you not to treat me as if—as if—as you just did. I've given all that to somebody else."

"Somebody else," he echoed.

"Yes," I nodded. "Yes, Breck; yes—somebody else."

"Oh!" he said. "Oh!" and stared at me. I could see it hit him.

"I'll go and put my things on," I explained, and went away.

When I came back he was standing just where I had left him. Something moved me to go up and speak to him. I had never seen Breckenridge Sewall look like this.

"Good-night, Breck," I said. "I'm sorry."

"You! Sorry!" he laughed horribly. Then he added, "This isn't the last chapter—not by a long shot. You can go alone tonight—but remember—this isn't the last chapter."

I rode away feeling a little uneasy. I longed to talk to some one. What did he mean? What did he threaten? If only Esther—but no, we had never been personal. She knew as little about the circumstances of my life as I about hers. She could not help me. Anyway it proved upon my arrival at the rooms in Irving Place that Esther was not there.

I sat down and tried to imagine what Breck could imply by the "last chapter." At any rate I decided that the next one was to resign my position as Mrs. Sewall's secretary. That was clear. I wrote to her in my most careful style. I told her that until she was able to replace me, I would do my best to carry on her correspondence in my rooms in Irving Place. She could send her orders to me by the chauffeur; I was sorry; I hoped she would appreciate my position; she had been very good to me; Breckenridge would explain everything, and I was hers faithfully, Ruth Chenery Vars.

Esther didn't come back all night—nor even the next day. I could have sallied forth and found some of our old associates, I suppose; but I knew that they would all still be discussing the parade, and somehow I wanted no theorizing, no large thinking. I wanted no discussion of the pros and cons of big questions and reforms. I wanted a little practical advice—I wanted somebody's sympathetic hand.

About seven o'clock the next evening, the telephone which Esther and I had indulged in interrupted my lonely contemplations with two abrupt little rings. I got up and answered it weakly. I feared it would be Mrs. Sewall—or Breck, but it wasn't.

"Is that you, Ruth?"

Bob! It was Bob calling me! Bob's dear voice!

"Yes," I managed to reply. "Yes, Bob. Yes, it's I."

"May I see you?"

"Yes, you may see me."

"When? May I see you now?"

"Why, yes. You may see me now."

"All right. I'm at the Grand Central. Just in. I called your other number and they gave me this. I don't know where it is. Will you tell me?"

I could feel the foot that my weight wasn't on trembling. "Yes, I'll tell you," I said, "but I'd rather meet you—some nicer place. Couldn't I meet you?"

"Yes—if you'd rather. Can you come now?"

"Yes, now, Bob, this very minute."

"All right, then." He named a hotel. "The tea-room in half an hour. Good-by."

"Good-by," I managed to finish; and I was glad when I hung up the receiver that Esther wasn't there.